Generation Kill director Susanna White talks to TBI about the HBO Iraq war miniseries…

How did you get involved with Generation Kill?
Company Pictures actually approached my agent to get Kevin Macdonald (Last King of Scotland) and my agent said ‘talk to Susanna’. I was a huge fan of The Wire and David [Simon] was a huge fan of Bleak House.

Period dramas are very different to a contemporary war series, how much of a challenge was that?
We saw nothing odd in the director of Bleak House doing a very contemporary series. We connected on ideas of how to handle a big, ensemble cast over a prolonged period and how to use action and non-action. David wanted someone who could handle the character arcs over the piece. We were kindred spirits.

How come the series was shot in Africa?
HBO’s original budget was for a US shoot with US crew and that came in at over $120 million. Then they asked Company Pictures to re-budget using British directors and international cast and crew and it suddenly became an affordable show.

But it still had a huge budget, compared to a British drama. Did that bring added pressure?
By a long way it was the biggest budget I have worked with. There was pressure, everyone was at the top of their game and I had to raise my game.

Did thecable network interfere much – were there a lot of notes from HBO?

We agreed the look of the show ahead of time. After that HBO’s notes were absolutely minute. They loved the rushes. The only thing they did say was that a lot of the African extras didn’t look Iraqi enough. It was the most supportive environment I have ever shot a film in – once we had agreed a vision they backed it 100%.

How did it differ from working in the UK?
With a BBC show, Jane Eyre or Bleak House there is a lot more involvement from production execs at the broadcaster wanting approval. HBO doesn’t have the pressure to get viewers in the same way as the BBC. They have made some of the best TV ever and are some of the best risk-takers. They are prepared to back talent and take risks.

Was there a sense that it was unusual for a woman to be directing a series about the US Marines?
There was far more concern about being British than being a woman. Especially when I suggested asking a non-American [Swede] Alexander Skarsgård, to play the lead character. That was the biggest point of difference with David, but ultimately he came round.

What input did Evan Wright, author of the book that the series is based on, have?
Evan was a huge resource and we were nervous about who to cast as him in the show. He recognised that the TV show had to be different to the book.

There’s still conflict in Iraq – is there scope for any kind of follow-up?
There can’t be any follow on. In episode seven, they get to Baghdad. A lot of the characters have now left the marines so there’s no scope for another film. And [Ed Burns, David Simon and Evan Wright] are all writing movies now anyway.

Does directing a big US series open a lot of doors for you in the US – what are you working on next?
Yes. I’m talking to HBO and there’s been a lot of interest coming from Hollywood. Next, I’m directing the new Nanny McPhee movie with Emma Thompson [for Working Title Films].

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